Gangster Movie Month: "Dick Tracy" Review

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The comic strip detective finds his life vastly complicated when Breathless Mahoney makes advances towards him while he is trying to battle Big Boy Caprice's united mob.
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Gangster Movie Month: "Dick Tracy" Review

-- Rating: PG (mild violence, profanity, adult situations)
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: June 15, 1990
Directed by: Warren Beatty
Genre: Action/Comedy/Crime

In "Dick Tracy," the titular detective (Warren Beatty) suits up in a bright yellow overcoat and matching fedora, as if he is asking to be spotted by the criminals he is chasing down. In a regular crime drama, no cop would dream of wearing something so eye-catching. But "Dick Tracy" is no ordinary crime drama. It is based on the popular comic strip characters by Chester Gould, and the entire film looks like it popped straight out of a comic strip. Tracy's bright yellow ensemble is arguably the least interesting costume when villains like Flattop (William Forsythe), who is literally flat-headed, are taken into account.

Tracy occupies a colorful and vibrant city that has way too many crime bosses trying to run it. The main kingpin is Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), a man who salivates at the thought of bringing Tracy down. He is one of the biggest criminal masterminds in the city, rivaled only by Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino). When he gets a tip about Lips and his lieutenants getting together for a big poker game, he sends his enforcers to mow them down. This means he gets the Ritz Club, formerly owned by Lips, and inherits its star performer, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). This isn't enough for the greedy Caprice, however. He decides to have all the other gangster bosses come together at a big conference so that he can steal all their rackets.

Tracy's goal is to bring down Caprice, but he has to dodge a lot of bullets in order to do so. Meanwhile, his personal life is complicated by his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley), who wants nothing more than to become Mrs. Dick Tracy. In addition, Tracy ran down a thief named Kid (Charlie Korsmo), whom he somehow can't bear to send to the orphanage. He takes Kid and his voracious appetite in, although he knows he is breaking the law by keeping him. He becomes attached despite himself, putting a human face on Tracy before he goes to war with Caprice and colorful criminals like Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman) and Shoulders (Stig Eldred), just to name a few. It all leads up to a very surprising twist in the end that is one of the more entertaining scenes in the film.

The comic strips upon which the film is based were only drawn in seven basic colors, allowing them to really pop off the page. Beatty, a huge fan of the character since his youth, decided to honor this tradition and film the movie using only these seven colors. He had costume designer Milena Canonero clothe the actors in these colors, and set designer Richard Sylbert was careful to make sure that every house, car, and building was in one of these shades as well. The result is a visually rich film that looks like a Technicolor dream from a lost era. The contrast is appealing and adds to the story, such as when the yellow-clad Tracy sits in a diner with girlfriend, Tess, enveloped in a stunning green dress. The contrast is pretty great, but somehow the two colors complement each other, much like the warmhearted Tess complements the occasionally gruff detective. The colorful world is stunning to watch, especially in the many musical montages that dot the film.

The amount of music in the film was no surprise, given the presence of pop superstar, Madonna. By using footage of Breathless Mahoney tied in with scenes of Tracy taking down Big Boy Caprice's band of goons, Beatty has made a film that stops just short of becoming a musical. This makes good use of Madonna's voice, while also showing just how hard and long Tracy had to work to take down the bad guys. It gives the audience a greater appreciation for the amount of work Tracy had to put in, especially those who may not be familiar with the comic strips upon which the movie was based.

The film had been in preproduction several times before it finally got made in the late 1980s for a summer 1990 release. The entertainment industry trade papers had a field day with the film's production woes, telling tales of five-year delays and budget constraints. When a film gets that much bad press before release, it generally turns out to be a dud. Fortunately for fans of the hero detective, the trade papers were wrong. It was a solid film then, a nice contrast to the darker fare such as Tim Burton's "Batman," to which it was often compared. More than two decades after the theatrical release, it actually looks better than before. The rare movie holds up well over time; the even rarer movie like "Dick Tracy" actually improves over time.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars